New Year Stegosaurus

Thus far we have come through the winter, on this bleak and blasty shore…

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1856 (Southport, Lancashire)

It is New Year’s Eve and all sorts of distractions are on offer to numb the passage of time, all of them alcohol-based, naturally. The forced conviviality is not to everyone’s taste, of course – some prefer to feel the time slipping from them, and others, wising up, prefer to celebrate on New Year’s Day when prices are cheaper and the dance floor more manageable.

I have spent New Year’s Eve in various states of drunkenness at various parties, most of which were utterly forgettable, and not just because of the alcohol. Precisely two were enjoyable in their own right – 2000, when I was on a tall ship with a drunken crew moored in front of the Dogana in Venice; and 1994, when I saw eighty-four pianists play Rhapsody in Blue in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo (enjoyable not for the pianos but for the dancing in the rain that followed). The rest were rubbish. Now I mostly just drink whisky and read a book and have an actual pleasant time.

However, there is not only the feeling of a year dying, but also in a small way of a corner turned, in celebration of which I offer this short film of a stegosaurus being pieced back together at the Natural History Museum in London where it has just been acquired – it is the most complete skeleton of the creature extant, albeit of a juvenile (it is roughly half the length tip to tail of the largest 9m specimens).

Listening Lions

I have posted before on the ghosts of Cambridge, and mentioned the legend that the stone lions of the Fitzwilliam Museum come down from time to time and prowl the streets.

They do not, of course. It is folk legend, necessarily of recent origin, conforming to the usual fairy-tale patterns. But folk legend and fairy tale equally draw on the magical properties of objects and sculptures, and the belief common to all peoples that an effigy or representation of a living being can itself come alive, and is imbued with some magical power. Thus we have weeping madonnas at one end of the scale and a Night at the Museum at the other. Museums are stores, not only of stones and pots and relics, the bones of our civilisations, but of magic, and of persistence.

And since poetry and folk legend share a common origin, I suppose, in the imaginative fear of what lies beyond the firelight, it is no coincidence that erstwhile children’s laureate, poet and writer Michael Rosen has written a poem about the Fitzwilliam lions, called The Listening Lions, as a response to the Cambridge Cycle of Songs project, and has been doing workshops on the poem and on poetry in general at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here is a short film made by Historyworks, on the lions, the poem, and the workshops, in which Michael Rosen talks about entering the consciousness of the stone lions. He does not use the word magic or voodoo, but that’s what he’s doing.

And here is Michael Rosen reading the poem.

For more on big cats in Cambridge, see also this post

Losing Your Umbrella

It has become umbrella weather. Students like to talk about umbrellas, and are surprised when I tell them I don’t have one, never use one, and haven’t used one for about twenty years, largely because, although you will occasionally see a cyclist bending his brolly into the wind like the Dutchman who ended up in the polder, in general a cyclist’s weather precautions differ from a pedestrians most notably in the absence of umbrellas (although this is run close by the need for flourescence).

I also don’t have an umbrella because on the odd occasion in the past when I have owned one (the only time I can remember buying one was in Milan, oddly enough), I have rapidly lost it.


I have read somewhere that in fact no one ever really owns an umbrella, they merely pass through your transum for a spell before shaking themselves free you and accompanying someone else on their spirit journey instead. Given its size and the oddity of its form, an umbrella is a surprisingly easy object to misplace. I suppose people leave them in shops and restaurants most frequently, but I took a ride in a taxi not long ago and the driver assured me that most umbrellas in the universe had been lost in the back of a cab at some time or other.

That same driver also offered me a conundrum which he had not been able satisfactorily to resolve in ten years. Up until ten years ago, he said, he had driven a black cab and had found all manner of lost objects on the back seats: wallets, phones, gloves, scarves, bags and of course, umbrellas. It was, he said, the bane of his life because for the more valuable objects he had to take pains to reunite them with their owners, while the umbrellas simply piled up like lumber in his house. But then he had switched from the classic black cab to a more generic people carrier, and from that point on had found barely a peanut left on the back seats. He had no idea why – perhaps it had something to do with window size, or seat angle, or seat softness; or perhaps simply something to do with confirmation bias.

Regardless of the reason, by now I imagine his stock of umbrellas will have run down to nothing; they will have reentered general circulation, and who knows? one day soon one might drift through my hands for a while.

Yule Log and Golden Bough

In modern Christendom the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive, or to have survived down to recent years, in the old custom of the Yule log, clog, or block, as it was variously called in England. ….

The idea that the life of the oak was in the mistletoe was probably suggested, as I have said, by the observation that in winter the mistletoe growing on the oak remains green while the oak itself is leafless… Primitive man might think that, like himself, the oak-spirit had sought to deposit his life in some safe place, and for this purpose had pitched on the mistletoe, which, being in a sense neither on earth nor in heaven, might be supposed to be fairly out of harm’s way.

The Golden Bough Sir J.G.Frazer

I always succumb to the temptation of a Yule log, but by Boxing Day it is beginning to look less appetising.


Few things are hardy enough to outlast Christmas, in fairness, but the Yule log very rapidly outstays its welcome. We call it a Yule log, but of course the Yule log is supposed to be something you burn on the fire, a winter counterpart to the bonfire of midsummer, since in pagan ceremonial both solstices were fire festivals. Fire makes ash and ash makes for new growth. In some cultures the ash from the Yule log was scattered on the fields in order to benefit the coming crops.

The Yule log is one of the two identifiable pagan customs to remain in our Christmas celebrations, the other being the hanging of mistletoe. Mistletoe, or the Golden Bough, is a parasitical plant whose luminous leaves have long suggested rebirth at the dead heart of the year, especially since it thrives when, as Frazier mentions above, the leaves of the host plant have long since departed. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what the chaste kiss under the mistletoe descends from.

And so the unregenerate, sadly decaying chocolate variety of Yule log can do nothing but parody the various folk rites from which it is descended: I may try throwing it on the fire if it doesn’t go away soon, but I do not think it will burn much, let alone benefit the crops.

Christmas Truce

I had a student a while back who one year decided to spend Christmas in London. She was Russian, and in Russia Christmas is celebrated around our New Year, so she thought it would be interesting to have two Christmases. However, she had not bargained for the Christmas Truce.

The Christmas Truce is the sudden peaceful cessation of spending and consuming which descends on the Western World every year around 25th December. The brutal and dehumanising trench warfare of the preceding few weeks, where desperate shoppers with thousand-yard-stares go hand-to-hand over wastelands of tat, gives way to an eerie silence. The streets are deserted, the shops are all closed, a few people start to emerge slowly, mistrustfully, late in the morning, perhaps driving over to equally suspicious relatives; some walk down to the pub, the only establishments open, or, later in the day, take new bikes or hats and gloves out for a walk. It is an oddly human time, away from the crunching cash-registering machinery of modern consumer warfare.

My Russian student found herself wandering around with nothing to do and nowhere to go. But a deserted city has its own beauty and fascination.


I lived in Milan in the early 1990s, where in August the city emptied and only one shop per quarter remained open, by law, and you could walk down the middle of the empty streets without fear of getting run over. This, of course, is a trope of science fiction movies – the human race wiped out by an asteroid strike or a mysterious virus, a few lonely survivors. But the fantasy is not one of no humans, I think, so much as no human-built systems of interaction. The deserted city becomes a playground, a place where the survivors can be, paradoxically, more human.

So if it does not make for a particularly merry Christmas, a Christmas day alone in Britain can be an oddly memorable one: a slightly spectral, unusual, and in the end pastoral anomaly of time. And a good time to wander about.


I bumped into Susie by the coffee machine and the water fountain at the end of last week. She was filling a cup with water, and was pleased to tell me that with it – her ecocup – she had, between water and coffee, saved over 1000 disposable paper cups in 2014.

This is admirable, and I am ashamed. I am an inveterate user of disposable cups, even using them for the filter coffee that appears at first break, where china cups are also laid out (mealy justification: I can fit more coffee in a paper cup, and it doesn’t slop over the sides so easily; invariable if I carry a china cup and saucer downstairs I end up slurping my coffee from the saucer). So unbeknown to Susie, she and I operate a carbon trading system in my head, whereby I take up the slack in emissions which her actions generate.

Which begs the question I suppose, what does the credit side of my balance sheet look like? Well I’m not going to make a list, but I’m feeling a bit smugger than usual this Christmas, having cut back a little on the tat. I was in John Lewis yesterday and people were buying presents – I saw a young man staring helplessly at a display of pasta machines, clearly wondering a) what they were  and b) if his mother would like one. I also saw a young couple looking desperately at a couple of ping-pong bats, for a niece or nephew I suppose.

It’s all a bit desperate. I am not about to buy people goats for Christmas, but I am doing better than the memorable Christmas several years ago when my children were very young, when I thought we would be trapped, unable to open the door for the mass of wrapping paper and rubbish that was slow-motion exploding in the room; we would be found, months or years later, I envisioned, like the skeletons of tomb raiders weighed down by the gold they could not carry and would not give up.

So this year as presents I am giving less rubbish, and more recyclable alcohol in bottles (not to my children). I hope to receive more of the same. And I promise not to drink any of it from a paper cup.

The Eskimo for Snow

As everyone knows, the Eskimo do not have 49 words for snow. It is, if not an urban myth, then a polar one.

The story that they do was first put about by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boaz, who was making a point about our sensitivity to the variations in the natural world, and the tendency of language to accommodate itself to what is important to a culture. In fact there are roughly as many root words for snow in Eskimo as there are in English, but Eskimo languages can build words and variations on words with much greater flexibility than English (in a way analogous to compounding in German, I suppose). So it depends how you count.

Here, for the curious, are two words for snow in Sami, a language unrelated to the Eskimo-Aleut group (although there has been speculation linking Eskimo to Finnish, which is in turn closely related to Sami).

The business of counting words is a tricky one. Some estimates suggest English far outstrips any other language both in its total lexicon and in its words commonly used; alternative ways of counting give German an infinity of words (since they can be endless combined and re-combined). It is clear that English has a vast vocabulary, being as it is a compound of Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic language) and French; the morphological simplicity consequent on this merger has allowed English to absorb and transform words from any number of loan languages, chiefly Greek (for words of a scientific stamp, principally) but countless others – including, of course, Eskimo, from which we have kayak, igloo, anorak, husky, and, apparently, Mukluk (type of furry boots).